Saturday 10 March 2012

Simplicity leading to complexity? Does it really happen?


Can the more complex really arise spontaneously from the simpler?

Does it ever?

That is what a selection mechanism is supposed to do, to increase complexity incrementally and spontaneously because the more complex is better at reproducing itself (because complexity is potentially more efficient at using resources).

But the evidence to support this vision of complexity arising spontaneously seems to be embedded in either theoretical or various scientific disciplines - and is thus only as valid as those academic disciplines, which may mean there is zero intrinsic validity in these claims when disciplines are incompetent, corrupt or ineffective.

Are there any common sense examples known from common experience.



Anonymous said...

The experimental physical sciences, to my mind an area less polluted by modernity, heavily subscribe to the notion of entropy, which is exactly the opposite. Complex-->Simple. On large time scales a universe of beige aether.

JCM said...

No, Anonymous, YOU have it backwards. Just google "entropy complexity", and maybe "information theory", too.

Anyway, how about language acquisition as a common sense example? How about zygote to child?

dearieme said...

You must have done some crystallisations in the chem lab, Bruce?

Christian said...

If you can read french, I recommend the works of Claude Tresmontant, a Catholic philosopher, on those issues. In his book, Les Métaphysiques principales, he shows that: 1) Being can't emerge from Non-Being; 2) Order can't emerge from chaos; and 3) Information can't emerge from randomness.

According to Tresmontant, the laws of thermodynamics undermine radically the materialist metaphysic of modern philosophers. In a very amusing passage, we see Nietzsche trying to explain how the universe is cyclical, and thus a perpetual motion machine, by arguing that the universe feeds on his own feces... a side of Nietzsche that is rarely mention.

hbd chick said...

"That is what a selection mechanism is supposed to do, to increase complexity incrementally and spontaneously because the more complex is better at reproducing itself...."

natural selection in biology (i don't know about other disciplines) can work either way: simple to complex or vice versa. it's not just a one-way street.

The Crow said...

Complexity works well if built upon strong foundations.
But simplicity is the best starting point.
When the complex fails from insufficient support, it is necessary to rebuild from the simple.

Have you gone mad from modernity?
If you have, then a grand clean-up is in order.
Remove everything, clear the ground, and begin again, from first-principles.
Rebuilding upon wreckage is a guarantee of recurrent failure.

Bruce Charlton said...

@hbdc - yes of course. But complex to simple does not require any explanation. Can you think of examples of the opposite accessible to commonsense.

Gerard M said...

I'd think an acorn growing into an oak tree would be a move from simple to complex. Would that count?

Kristor said...

All the examples given so far are cases of complexity implicit and potential in a being being unfolded and realized explicitly. The complexity is not new; it was already there, enfolded in the structure of its antecedents.

Bruce Charlton said...

So far we have:

language acquisition
zygote to child/ acorn to oak

Any more?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - yes, I think so too. But I'd like to hear what people regard as examples of the phenomenon, whether or not they stand-up to scrutiny.

i.e. what work does selection (or some other theory of complexity) do in ordinary experience?

Bruce Charlton said...

An example of selection which is used in (almost) common sense is The Market in economics - which is credited with the ability to build larger and more complex (and efficient) organizations by undirected and transmissible differences between organizations plus competition, without assuming any purpose behind it.

Kristor said...

I don't think the Market qualifies as complexity arising out of simplicity. "The Market" is just a way of saying, "all the individual agents engaging in transactions with each other." It's the individuals that constitute the market, so that the apparently intentional behavior of the market is really just the net intention of the individuals participating therein. I.e., the market is a heuristic. The market itself does not do anything; so, it doesn't really exist as a concrete entity, even though it is customary to speak as though it does.

KJJ said...

How about individual fish to school of fish?

dearieme said...

Condensation is another one. You can also find self-ordering going on in flowing granular solids.

Bruce Charlton said...

KJJ - I think this phenomenon is simply not explained by mainstream science (it is indeed one of Sheldrake's favourite examples of something which can't be explained by mainstream biology but can be explained by morphic fields) - and the general public would probably regard it as a mystery rather than offering an explanation?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - I think you may be disposing too briskly with something which is - in fact - actually perhaps the one and only common experience phenomenon which is fairly widely explained using evolutionary reasoning.

Although perhaps it more often uses power as the variable rather than economics; I mean, people reason that nations or empires grow (in size and complexity) and get more powerful, and this enables further growth.

And this may happen without individual purpose, as in the idea that the British acquired and Empire in a fit of absent mindedness (rather than setting out to create an Empire).

So, on the whole, at face value - the main example of evolutionary thinking in general discourse is 'th emarket' rather than anything from biology.

(In David L Hull's book Science and Selection, the three examples are natural selection and the immune system - from biology - ad the market from economics. Hull was, for my money, one of the deepest thinkers about selection outside of formal systems theory.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - Thanks for these suggestions. Somehow they don't quite strike me as what I am looking for - partly becuase they happen in the lab, and partly because the general man in the street does not regard solids or crystals and more complex than liquids or gases - just as the same thing in a different form.

e.g. I would guess that the average person would not regard ice as more *complex* than water (or steam), just as *harder* than water (or steam)!

Proph said...

"All the examples given so far are cases of complexity implicit and potential in a being being unfolded and realized explicitly. The complexity is not new; it was already there, enfolded in the structure of its antecedents."

Good comment from Kristor here. The movement from potentiality to actuality is not itself a change in complexity; the mere fact of having potentiality is sufficient to qualify something as "complex" (i.e., composed of more than one part).

Interestingly this leads to the problem of conflation between two meanings of the word "complex." So philosophers assert for instance that God is absolutely simple (i.e., a single act of being, simultaneously goodness, justice, mercy, etc.). But intuitively such a being is not "simple" (i.e., easy) to apprehend or intuit. In fact, short of divine self-revelation, it is frequently impossible.

robert said...

it seems that complexity is there at the beginning of time. It simply unfolds its potential in time. As such, it cannot be "explained". The process of its unfolding can be described, with some lower-level laws maybe identified, but that is it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@robert - your point is worth making again because it is common sense; and that is what everybody in the world believed until the mid-1800s.

However, from that time people began to believe that complexity could be built-up incrementally in a bottom-up fashion either from nothing - or from just a very little complexity that arose spontaneously by chance.